Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Old Fashioned Donuts




 The morning started with anticipation and a quick and favored breakfast of hot toasted English muffins melting a generous share of country butter and a healthy dripping of local honey. Add a handful of chilled blueberries for good measure. The sun would be up in less than an hour and we had a way to go to the desired cover. My slim Silver Pigeon was cased and ready. The shooting vest was hanging from the hook in my truck with a fistful of yellow Federal 7 1/2s in the pocket. Gabi was spinning at the door, eager to take her place on the front seat, knowing what was ahead.  

The season started a little too warm and the cover a little too thick for good grouse hunting, as usual, but October’s chill straightened that out. There appeared to be plenty of birds around and social media sites were plastered with advice on where to find them and photos of dead grouse. Gabi and I were doing fine, and the first birds of the year fell to my grandfather’s 16 gauge – a gun I wanted to add my own experiences to the history of that old Remington. 


Sometime along the way I switched to the twenty, a gun I believe I shoot best and the gun I’d hunt out the season with. After a stop to refill my coffee, we drove to the cover. What used to be a logging road is overgrown to a single-file path trafficked by more wildlife than people. A quarter mile from the trailhead the beavers moved in and flooded the trail, leaving a narrow crossing on the dam itself. I’ve hunted this place for years and have seen it develop from prime grouse cover to the older woods it is now. But it’s a picturesque hike with a bird dog – a mix of aspen, birch and pine with several ponds along the way. Ducks, geese, and swans are often spotted, and we always find grouse.  

Gabi raced across the beaver dam well ahead of me and I heard her bell drop into the thick stuff left of the trail. I was climbing the grade from the pond when her bell fell silent. She was a good ways out and after a stumbling, ducking search I spotted her locked up at the edge of alders looking straight at me. The grouse blew up and pumped for altitude when my shot caught it. Ah, the smell of burnt power! Feeling good, I pushed back to the trail, keeping Gabi close. Five minutes later she was pointing again, a bit off the right side of the trail. Gun at the ready, I ducked low balsams branches when a grouse jumped from the tree and offered no shot. A second grouse was taken over her point a bit later and I was enjoying the beautiful day with a fine dog and the comfortable heft of two birds in the bag. Then I missed the next four birds, sending seven shots with no results. That was the start of my shooting slump. 



 My dictionary defines a slump as “an unaccountable decline in effectiveness.” Well, ok, it’s not like I’m a crack shot to begin with, so any decline is noticeable. I’m still haunted by a missed shot that I knew I would miss because of poor gun mounting: the grouse rose above the bare treetops and offered an easy left-right crossing shot. I rushed the shot and failed to raise the buttstock to my shoulder where it belongs. I thus didn’t get my cheek down on the stock and I knew I was off even as I pulled the trigger. Twice.  

Nash Buckingham wrote, “Swift, comfortable, accurate gun mounting that coordinates timing, forward allowance and barrel level (a trio not easily assembled) is a must.” You’d think by this stage of the game I’d have that down pat. Excuses are easy to come by and frustration can be tough to overcome, but the grouse win more often than not, so bid them farewell and hope they live to breed next spring.  


  


Some shooting friends and I were discussing the demise of little cafes that used to be around. You know the kind where you enter and take whatever is available, a chair at a table, a seat in a booth, or stool at the counter. The smell of bacon fills the room in the mornings, burgers in the afternoon. A waitress approaches carrying a pot of coffee. Pies are in the glass case. And there are donuts. Oh, those donuts!  


Whenever I’m hunting or fishing in the area, a stop at Patten’s Cafe is called for. The usual cliental is made up of loggers, road workers, and sportsmen; those retired lead the storytelling. I always stop for two plain cake donuts. I assume they are fried in lard or Crisco, a little crunchy on the outside and soft, but dry inside. You’ll want coffee. Delicious! 


 


 


 


 


 


 

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Fine times

 There’s not a thing more peaceful than being on a still lake early in the morning. Nothing that I can think of, anyway. Other than the birds singing, the only sound is my fly line coursing through the air and the plopping popper being stripped back in. It won’t be long before the drone of an outboard motor out on the main lake will reach my ears, but for now the lake is mine.



I could consider this lake my home waters, but there is plenty of the lake I have yet to explore. Partly because I tend to fish a few favored spots I’ve found and partly because this lake covers nearly 40,000 acres with over 300 miles of shoreline. Of course, there are many boat access landings on it, and I can be on one in less than twenty miles from my house. As the crow flies the southernmost bay is only ten miles away.

There is plenty of development along the shores, more than a guy like me cares to see – everything from small, sagging cabins built by iron miners back when they could afford a chunk of lakeshore to the multi-million-dollar mansions of the wealthy, mostly absentee owners who are, well, mostly absent. Progress, I suppose.

Still, there are miles of undeveloped shoreline, rocky bays and islands where I go and spend hours casting poppers and streamers for bass, pike, and muskies. Some of the fish are big, some are not. Sometimes the bite is on. Sometimes it's just a boat ride. Pack a lunch. Sip some coffee. Look around and wish it was always like this.



I was on the lake again the other day and pushed my boat off at a favorite landing. Early season madness was over, the walleye fishing had evened out and there was less rush to get on the water. Most folks were either still in the sack or having breakfast and thinking about mowing the lawn instead of fishing. I was glad that no one was around, because right from the launch I drop the electric trolling motor and start working the rocky shoreline. I can’t be the only bass angler that recognizes good habitat, but it seems people are eager to get away from the boat ramp and I’d sooner not advertise good fishing holes fifty feet from the dock.

While it would be nice if it was fishing anytime, all the time, of course it’s not. There’s been some tough weather this season and though plenty of the country is seeing worse, the weathercasters continually warn of approaching severe storms. A few nights ago I stood at the bedroom window listening to a roaring wind and trees cracking, followed by buckets of rain. Luckily no buildings were damaged and the electricity was only out for a short time, but I’m still not finished cleaning up downed trees. But the trees aren’t going anywhere so tomorrow I’m going fishing.




Friday, May 6, 2022

Slow morning drive

 There’s no doubt that this Spring has been one of the latest in arriving. Here in northern Minnesota the official date of March 20 means little, and Groundhog’s Day means nothing. But this year winter really kept her grip on things. Fishing season opens in eight days and the lakes are still mostly ice covered. Shaded areas still support deep banks of snow. The grouse have just started drumming at my place last week. There are a few woodcock around and they’re looking for someplace high and dry to nest. 



This morning Gabi and I took a ride to check things out on the forest road near here. There’s nothing like driving east into the sun to notice how dirty the windshield is, but it didn’t seem to bother Gabi, always alert for activity. It was 29 degrees when I left the house, so the heater felt good. A big mug of coffee was delicious and morning public radio is usually pretty entertaining, sometimes enlightening. 



The road took us to two lakes and approaching the first it didn’t seem like much was going on. There is some open water out from the shore but the main body is covered with rotting ice. Thanks to my 10x binocular I soon spotted a multitude of waterfowl. Mallards, ringnecks, blue-winged teal, Canada geese, ospreys, eagles, and the largest flock of trumpeter swans I’ve ever seen – probably 30 in one group. 



On the way to the second lake a couple of healthy-looking deer crossed ahead and a grouse was out picking gravel from the road. In some places patches of snow still covered the road. The second lake is smaller, but deeper and showed less open water then the first.  



Yes, Spring is slow coming, but sure is welcome. 


 

Friday, April 29, 2022

Granddad's gun

 For an outdoor minded kid, our duck camp was a favorite place to be, particularly in the fall when it was gunning season. But there was more to it than that. The long narrow lane in was a good place to start teaching a youngster to drive a car -- that's when I was first allowed behind the wheel. In the summer there were fishing and swimming to be done and boat handling was learned by accident. The sandy river-bottom soil was home to a great watermelon patch, and the surrounding hardwoods were meant for exploring. Fox and raccoons to be seen; muskrats and mink and turtles and frogs along the river. A boy with a handful of traps could get some fine nature lessons. Still, those autumn flights of waterfowl remained the year’s foremost attraction.  



Dad used his old Remington Sportsman 16-gauge and knocked ducks from the air with little apparent effort. It was his gun and he knew how to use it. Being a youngster short on knowledge and experience, and unaware of what I was being taught, I assumed my shooting failures were attributed to being outgunned. So occasionally Dad would shoot with his beautiful little pump-action .410 just to show me it could be done, because in those early years I was using a .410 and not hurting the duck population much. Back in those days before non-toxic shot regulations a good man could wield that little sub-gauge effectively. Yet, as I grew older, I figured I’d pile ‘em up if only I had a 12 gauge. 

When I hit my teens I found some ways to earn a little money with various jobs and fur trapping and before long I’d saved enough to buy a used 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. I figured I was in high heaven then, while Dad stood beside me in the marsh and continued to wipe my eye with the old 16.  



I took that old Remington Sportsman out the other day just to have a look. It had been sitting, unused, since the mid 1970’s when Dad put it away for the new Browning I gave him one Christmas. And, oh, how he shot that Browning till the end of his shooting days! I decided the old Remington deserved a workout at the gun club, but first I had to do something about the ill-fitted, deteriorating recoil pad. I’ve refinished a few gunstocks and had a few used pads laying around, so I was happy to find one that looked like it would work. After I removed the old rubber pad, I found a slip of yellowed, brittle paper inside the hollow of the stock. On that paper was written my grandfather’s name, address, and the date: 7 Sept. 1940. That gun was not only my father’s, but my grandfather’s before him and the sentimental cool factor sudden raised by 100%. 



The fixed full choke barrel was the norm for waterfowl before non-toxic shot became required, but it’s not very conducive to high scores on the skeet range. I was happy to hit more than I missed and am now pondering having the choke opened for a more useable grouse and woodcock gun. I can’t imagine how much game was brought to ground with the old shotgun and I’ll never match it, but perhaps I can add a bit of my own history gunning with it. 





Friday, April 1, 2022

Spooling line tips... sort of.

 One day old Bill, a gunsmith and skeet shooting buddy, came to me and said, "Hey, you're a fly fisher, take this," and handed me a big, mostly plastic reel that he assumed was a fly reel. I didn't know exactly what kind of reel it was. but it wasn't any kind of fly reel I'd ever seen. But I took it and found a use for it. I learned later the reel is called a mooching reel used for some type of salmon fishing, I'm guessing big, deep water 'cause it'll hold nearly a half mile of 14# test line. 


I had two old broken spinning rods -- why I keep this stuff I'll never know -- but with a little cutting and epoxy they were fitted together and have made a handy tool for re-spooling lines and particularly for cleaning fly lines.  The big reel works great for that and I've been using it for years. 



So, I decided to put a new line on my oldest trout reel. I've had the new line for a couple of months, purchased along with a couple of new shirts paid with Cabela's points. I figured it was due because the old one had been spooled for a long time, years, in fact. For some reason I decided to do the job from my easy chair, close to my coffee cup, and pulled the old line off and dropped it to the floor instead of getting my tool. I was surprised that that old line was in such good condition -- no cracks or noticeable wear at all -- and I knew then I would keep it as a spare and rewind it to the empty spool the new line came on.  So, after the new line was on the fly reel, I started wrapping the old one and realized it was easier said than done. What a tangle! The spooling tool would have saved some frustration. Lesson learned. I should have known better, though seems fitting for April Fools Day.



 Incidentally, I don't typically recommend or endorse any brand name or products to anyone. There are folks better at analyzing this stuff than I am, and my advice could be interpreted as the blind leading the blind, but I have a couple of the less pricey Cabela's lines on reels and they perform and last as well, for me, as some of my lines costing twice as much. Just saying. Good fishing! 


 

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Another fly box?

 Out in the garage there are five or six fly boxes loaded with trout flies. A shelf in the basement holds a couple more trout boxes. Considering how often they get used and how long that inventory will last, well, there is just no need to tie more trout flies. Except, of course, for extended body Hexagenia flies, because the current imitations leave something to be desired.

Surrounded by bass, pike, and muskie water -- so alongside those nifty trout boxes in the garage, crowding the wooden shelf, are the big fly boxes: the bass bugs and muskie streamers. There are no slots or tacky foam in those boxes, just empty space that could hold a fine luncheon if they weren't filled with an array of colorful bucktail, spun deer hair, animal fur, and synthetic fibers all wound on substantial hooks; some you could hang your coat on. A non-fisherman, a civilian, might lift the lid and jump back afraid of what may spring out and pounce on them.

Two or three of those boxes go in the boat, the first with bass poppers and divers. Number two with the clousers and Murdich Minnows and such type streamers. Third box is piled with the big stuff -- articulated, 6/0's, bushy headed Bufords and the like -- the flies that get attached to wire bite tippet, always. 

Might be best to go lighter in your buddy's boat. The owner is captain and likely has three large boxes of their own, along with rods and tools and all the other accoutrements that go with owning a boat. If it's all bass fishing maybe try to split one box with half top-water and half sub-surface. If muskies and pike are around, you'll have to bring that box, too. There's no other way. Everyone wants to use their own flies and you'll probably change flies three or four times during the day, so several dozen should be enough.

What about those coffee cans filled with rejects: handfuls of fur and feathers that, despite good intentions, looked too ridiculous to grace a leader. Or deer hair faded from use. Chewed by fish (happily, it happens) Or flies merely replaced to make room for something new. The idea is to strip the material off and re-use the hooks. Any day, now.

But still tying more? Of course. There are new materials to try. Techniques to experiment with: can a dubbing loop really be loaded with that long flash and fake fur?  What's with those wire spines, and heck yeah, you can make 'em yourself!




Lakes and rivers are still frozen here but fly fishing is on my mind. So I'm tying some more flies. There's an empty coffee can around here somewhere. 


Monday, February 7, 2022

Bird Dogs... love 'em


Even though we’re in deep winter now and it’s time for snowshoes and skis, firewood cutting and fly tying on these days of below zero temps; I can’t help but think about the past hunting season, toting my scattergun behind Gabi for some grouse gunning.

 

I followed her across the beaver dam, that little setter of mine, and heard her break left and disappear into the thick along the edge of the flooded alder swamp. Once I gained some high ground I stopped and listened, but all was quiet. I was going to have to ease back along the edge of that tangle and try to find her, for I figured she was on point. It took long minutes of ducking, tripping, and pushing through brush and balsam while gazing ahead for Gabi's white coat or a glimpse of her orange collar. Tough going, for sure, and I wondered if I was the first man to ever stumble ever lower toward the impassable alder swamp -- for there is no reason for man to ever want to. Unless to find a pointing bird dog. 

And there she was! I looked hard to make sure it was Gabi and not some bit of downed birch bark or the reflection off some water that coursed through and pooled around the trunks and shoots of alders and willows. Yes, it was her all right, standing firm on the last bit of high ground before getting her feet wet. And thankfully looking towards me from fifty yards out. Sunlight filtered down through the trees and lit the forest floor in a beautiful scene. We had the grouse pinned between us and though the bird might have fled with a low flush behind screening cover, it chose altitude for escape. Another step sent the bird pumping for the treetops and arced to level out for distance but caught a charge of 7 1/2's from my 20 gauge. If only they were all like that. 

Gabi rushed to the fallen grouse, picked it up and looked at me, carried it a couple of feet and dropped it. There she stood as if to say, "here's your bird, come and get it so we can get moving!" Finding birds is one thing -- retrieving? Not for her. Gabi swore off retrieving long ago. It's not that she doesn't try -- but it's those dry loose feathers in her mouth... At home she'll fetch all manner of plastic and canvas dummies, Dokken's Dead Fowl dummies, and even wing-wrapped retrieving bucks. Of course, I've tried frozen pigeons with a bit of success but when it comes to freshly killed birds, nope. Nor does she point dead -- she races to the downed bird, lifts it to show me, then spits it out and shakes the feathers from her mouth.  Gabi once pounced on a wing-tipped woodcock and held the live bird to ground with her front paws so I could come and get it. The woodcock never touched her lips and she was pleased with herself. 

One evening while Gabi was curled on my lap, I tried to explain the various methods of retriever training. She looked at me like I must be kidding. The subject was never brought up again. 

A setter's primary job is finding birds and I can't fault her in that department. Since puppyhood she's been a bird-finder, and as she developed, I was impressed by her abilities. Though sometimes I wondered about how she handled them. Gabi had some quirky ways about working scent and there were times when I heard grouse taking wing that I believed some of my previous dogs would have nailed. You can only judge what you can see, and she was right often enough to make me proud. But there were times when I heard her bell stop and a grouse flush, or was it a grouse flush and her bell stop? I'd push in to find her standing, looking over her shoulder at me and wagging her tail. Yeah, there was a grouse here, a nice one, too! You should have seen it! 

This past season was different, however. And it took me awhile to realize it. We were at the tailgate getting ready to hit the cover and it occurred to me I was opening another box of shells when I looked at her and said, "Gabi, you're a heck of a bird dog!" She'd been finding and handling birds all season and I'd been enjoying the fine shooting she provided. Running grouse, tight woodcock, singles, multiples -- it was great, and one of the best seasons I've had for some time. Perhaps it was a good year for grouse -- we seemed to find them everywhere. Or maybe Gabi just figured it all out.  



Compared to some exceptional bird dogs I've shot over; I've doubted Gabi could match them and said so. I think it's time to eat those words. 


 


 

Monday, November 1, 2021

October, where'd it go?


A year ago there was snow on the ground here and there will be again, soon, if the snow buntings I spotted on Friday are any indication. Those pretty little white and grey birds don't stick around long, apparently migrating ahead of the snow storm that's soon to follow. I've never known them to be wrong and snow will start falling within two weeks of first sighting them. And it's often less than two weeks.

Until then, however, the Northwoods autumn has been a fine one to enjoy. Tamarack trees have turned their winter golden/orange and it seems they soak in sunlight on bright days and emit a glow on cloudy days. Most of the leaves on the aspen and maples have dropped to a carpet of subdued color on the ground, and it's become cool enough to wear my favorite hunting coat while following Gabby in search of grouse. There's been a skim of ice on the water-filled ditch across Mattson's swamp each morning I pass on our way to the grouse coverts.


I've been behind bird dogs every fall for something like 40 years. Still, the sight of a white English setter locked up like a statue among that umber-colored forest floor thrills me to this day. Pushing through the thick stuff to flush the bird is seldom easy and the explosive flush of ruffed grouse doesn't always offer the chance for a shot, but when it works and your aim is true the bird takes the shot, pauses in mid-air as if waiting for the echo of the gun to subside, crumples and falls. The result is a feeling close to elation. I hope that never changes.




There was a day when I hunted from light to dawn. I had a number of dogs and rotated them throughout the day. If the season was open I was hunting, rain or shine, with an exuberance only youth can provide. I made trips for western grouse, partridge, and pheasants. I shot, and missed, many birds. When I look through the early pages of my gunning journal the numbers sometimes surprise me. Some folks may have thought I'd have done better given the time I spent in the woods, while others may have declared me a greedy game hog. I'm not much of a score keeper and stopped recording the count long ago. Instead I keep track of incidents --  like twice last week when I took a shot at a fast departing grouse then opened my gun to reload when two more birds wasted no time climbing for altitude and leaving while I stood flat-footed with one hand in my pocket and the open gun in the crook of my arm. Or when I drove an hour to a favorite cover to find I only had four shells along. Once we surprised a pair of trumpeter swans on a beaver pond and their flapping wings and tumultuous voices resounded over the lowland as they clamored for the sky. Or when Gabby did a fine job of nailing a running bird after several re-locations and the comfortable heft of that grouse in my game pocket.




There are many memories to recall, many dogs past and present, many shots taken and the friends that were there. Many autumn sunrises and many evenings with my hand wrapped around a glass and a sleeping setter at my side. Almost too many memories to recall. Almost.